I have been tormented by Donald Trump’s presidency. He represents almost everything I despise: greed, selfishness, pretension, ostentation, and ignorance about important matters that affect the lives of real people. There is nothing abstract about my feelings and I struggle to distance myself from them. It’s as though I am responsible, that I could have done something to avoid this catastrophe. Am I alone in this? Do you also feel strangely, shamefully responsible for his offenses, for allowing America to come to this?
In an effort to free myself from the torment, I have been casting about in my past to understand why it is so personal, and I’d like to share some of what I have found, hoping that you will also explore and also find ways to free yourselves.
The obvious place to go is my parents and their attitude towards politics. After all, research has shown that most of us don’t wander very far from our parental trees. My parents took politics very personally. Political discussion virtually crowded food from our dinner table. Whenever their friends came for an evening, politics were front and center. Everybody had an opinion, everybody was passionate. Being cool, having perspective had no currency in our home. Politicians, good and bad, friends and enemies, were the protagonists of almost every story. From earliest childhood, it was vital that my parents’ three children understand political issues and take stands on them. It was a measure of your citizenship and your value as a person. It has always been personal.
The intensity of my emotional and intellectual engagement and the sense of responsibility for political outcomes has held firmly over so many years despite the fact that I’ve rarely been involved in electoral politics. I read the newspaper avidly and give some money to campaigns. I speak passionately about issues when asked and often, much to some people’s consternation, when I’m not. But I don’t join grassroots organizing efforts. My districts vote the ‘right’ way without my help. Until recently, I haven’t written about politics. Why? Paradoxically, it may be that my powerful sense of responsibility has kept me at a distance for fear that I could never make enough of a difference.
The next stop in this exploration takes me to 1945, the year that my father was drafted and sent off to basic training in South Carolina. Alone and pregnant with my brother, my mother began to call me “my little man.” That wasn’t the normal tone she would set as a mother. Throughout the years, she seemed determined to balance my father’s ambitions for me with enough criticism to keep my ego in check. But, drawing on that long ago time, I have always thought that I should be able to take care of every problem. This, I imagine, was my first training as a psychotherapist.
Next stop, 1960. I am preparing to leave home for college. I have a premonition that the family will fall apart when I leave. There was no evidence, no concrete events, nothing whispered in my ears to support the feeling. Even now, I can’t figure out why I was so upset that I got sick. The doctor came to our house—yes, they still did in 1960—and gave me some medicine. It would be thirty years before my mother told me that he had given me a placebo, a sugar pill. It worked well enough for me to recover and to leave. But, in fact, my family did deteriorate badly when I went off, and my sense of importance was confirmed. No doubt, my feeling represented a child’s grandiosity, but it is through events like this that our relationship to the world is built.
A year later, as I approached Eliot House, my Harvard dorm, there was my father waiting for me. He was unannounced and unexpected. Without preamble, my father, normally a sober, contained, and soft-spoken man, his face distorted by pain, cried out that I needed to help him. I needed to come home and to convince my mother, who had accused him of wrecking their marriage, that she was wrong. He would never do such a thing. She was being crazy, he said. He seemed crazy to me. I was upset but not as upset as you might imagine a nineteen year old to be. For reasons I have never fully fathomed, it seemed natural that he—and my mother—would call on me to rescue their marriage. I left school that day and, for a week, scheduled talks with my mother, my father, their friends, my mother’s therapist—anyone who might help me understand the family crisis.
I failed to help, though eventually the conflict was shunted to the side and their marriage continued. But my failure did not persuade me that I shouldn’t have tried. Nor did it even dent my sense of responsibility for things near and far. In fact, the experience simply reinforced my need to take care of those I loved and, I think, to feel responsible for almost everybody.
Yet it has been the guidepost for much of my life. I spent my entire career trying to help individuals, couples, families, organizations, and communities. I still mentor many young people, thrilling to their development and worrying about their challenges. There’s no denying: I have positioned myself in this world to be of help. Success and failure in these endeavors has only been one measure of my participation. I have tried very hard to actually and concretely help. Looking back, I’d have to acknowledge that the pull to this responsibility has been stronger than any rational assessment of situations.
I know that I can’t do much, if anything, to save us from Donald Trump. If he harms the environment, diminishes our health care, trashes the dignity of the American presidency, brings us to war, he’ll do so and I am helpless to stop him. I despise that the end of my life may be filled with discouragement and alarm because of him.
In the spirit of knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, paving the way to freedom, I will bend every effort now to distance myself from his evil pull and from my own tendency to overreach. I will pay less attention, read the newspapers and internet sites less, and initiate fewer political conversations. I will try to turn away when faced with situations where I know that my efforts will be futile. Maybe I’ll be able ignore that almost primordial impulse without feeling that I have betrayed my parents’ dream of a better world and for a son who will make that happen—maybe I can let go just enough to find some peace in my days.